On The Nature Of Things Summary

Lucretius

On The Nature Of Things

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On The Nature Of Things Summary

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Inspired by ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (321-270 BC), Lucretius produced De rerum natura or On the Nature of Things, a six-book poem, during the middle of the first century BC. Titus Lucretius Carus lived until 50 or 55 BC, is believed to have been born in 94 BC, and to have produced some of the earliest examples of philosophical poetry—and through his work preserved much of the roots of Epicurean physics. Epicurus’ methods of discourse rejected both the concept of divine revelation as an explanation of the way things are and Plato’s concept of the mind, in which reason should rule over all else. Reason, to Epicurus, does come into play, but not until one searches for answers via the five senses. After this, in his thinking, conclusions can be drawn by deducing from the facts collected by the senses and that have been proven true.

On the Nature of Things is written in Latin hexameter, a format wherein each line of the poem has six units of rhythm, known as feet. Lucretius, like Epicurus before him, believed that it was reason, not religion, through which the world could be understood. As Christianity became more pervasive, Lucretius’ system of beliefs, which he hoped would gain traction among his readers, fell largely by the wayside. It was not until the Renaissance during the latter portion of the Middle Ages that his mammoth verse would be rediscovered and widely translated. The poem is not only considered a literary masterpiece but also a significant contribution to science and philosophy.

Major portions of On the Nature of Things center on the need to focus on details of natural phenomena as examined through the lens of direct observation. This philosophical concept suggests that it is evidence that will allow humans to use deductive reasoning to determine “the nature of things,” ranging from the human soul to the contents of the universe. This theory proposes that laws of nature govern everything in life, rather than gods having that power.  Man, then, to Lucretius, has nothing to fear with respect to death and can live with relative peace of mind.

Lucretius’ teachings favor peaceful pursuits over war among humans. His poetic musings depict graphically negative images of war and in contrast, people showing support for one another while enjoying their time together. As examples, he points to the Trojan War, with its goal of liberating Helen of Troy, and to the Peloponnesian Wars. In these deadly and protracted events virtually everyone lived in fear from the uncertainty over which side would win and thus become the ruling power. This tension can be avoided, he posits, if one can overcome the fear of death. Throughout the life of Lucretius, Rome engaged in many power struggles leading, for example, to the fall of the republican regime that had existed for much of his life. While not perfect, that reign did provide a sense of familiarity and prevented fear over what might take over in its wake.

On the Nature of Things may or may not exist in the final form that Lucretius envisioned, but the structure and organization are quite clear. The work is divided into six books, or parts, which in turn make up three pairs of books. The first two sections are concerned with the basic elements of the universe. He presents principles of the atomic system, deals with the infinite nature of the universe, and with its components, which are matter and void. Further, he explains atomic movement and shapes. In the scientific philosophy of Lucretius everything evolves from atoms.  Atoms are innumerable and space is infinite. Atoms are always in motion and can be neither created nor destroyed. These concepts, an extension of the work of Epicurus, form much of the basis of modern physics. Further explained is the idea that as atoms collide with each other they form clusters, bigger clusters, galaxies, and everything therein. The atoms that make up the human body, upon death, survive to continue the cycle of creation, growth, and death.

The second pair of books concerns the soul. Here, Lucretius discusses the mind and spirit and proves their mortality, saying that death is not to be feared. Sensation and thought are dealt with next, leading to a discourse on sexual love. The last two books focus on astronomical phenomena and the creation of the world as well as the emergence of life on earth and the growth of civilizations. Earthquakes, volcanoes, lightning, and other aspects of land and the atmosphere serve as topics in the final book.

Lucretius has received criticism mixed with praise over the years with respect to the portions of his poem that deal with scientific phenomena, and for his writings about religion, with their oppositional view towards the traditional beliefs and viewpoints. There has, however, been little if any disagreement over the literary merit of On the Nature of Things. The poem is widely revered as a masterpiece for its poetic use of language, structural technique, and view of humanity. Such is its scope that it is thought to have inspired a multitude of others in subsequent times, including Michel de Montaigne and Edmond Spenser. On the Nature of Things was also cited by Voltaire during his attacks on the Catholic Church.